Money Talks: An Invitation to Someone on The Internet to Back up their Ideas with Action
I just read this article. You should too. I came across it because it was shared around our team. Not sure why it touched a nerve with everyone, but it kind of did. Maybe the no-nonsense tone — which we like at Triggerise — or maybe because it made the case for Direct Cash Transfers — which is something we all support and promote along with many other enlightened professionals in this industry.
But upon reading it, I was actually disappointed in its content. Beyond the sound support for Cash Transfers the article is unhelpfully marred with so many clichés that it risks undermining the solid arguments for Cash Transfer simply because, by stereotyping the Aid industry (“clueless people in 4X4s”) Mr. Evans sounds himself a bit like a stereotype (“western naïve solutionist”).
I am personally not a big fan of traditional aid and I have been railing against its inefficiencies and politics for decades. In fact, everything we do here at Triggerise, is out of a desire to challenge some of the most fundamental ideas behind this industry. But contempt? To the contrary. If you want to really change anything — particularly something as complex as aid — you better not hold it in contempt, because I don’t think you can change something you despise.
As someone who has dedicated their career to challenging traditional aid, I get frustrated a lot with aid industry bullshit. But I experience similar frustrations with the corporate arrogance that is equally devoid of positive consequences. Stuff like this.
Here is the truth. Shit is complicated. Be wary of anyone telling you otherwise.
But back to the article. First off — just to get them out of the way before going into more constructive stuff — here is a quick list of the more offending clichés.
Cliche no. 1 — Reductionsim. Complex problems far away seem easy to solve. They aren’t. In this case, the fallacy that money alone will solve the fundamental problems that make this planet such a f**ed up place. Money alone has failed to solve “simpler” problems right inside San Francisco. Education, for example. Or inequality. Or, you know, public health.
Cliche no. 2 — Tech Solutionism. “Problem, shmoblem. Here’s an app”. Ever since “traveling the world” has become a thing I have been constantly running into over-educated types with world-changing ideas that make great TED talks but fail miserably to take off. Apps that “save lives” by playing medical information to the “illiterate masses” at the press of a button. Soccer balls that make delivering life-saving medicines a child’s play. After decades spent in those markets I have yet to come across one such product/ app/ technology that have had any impact to speak off. And before I get mobbed on Twitter by people yelling “mPesa!”, here is the thing: Mpesa’s unique scale in Kenya is a direct consequence of big investments done by the likes of DFID, among others. Doesn’t get more traditional aid than that.
Cliche no. 3 — “I have unique insights into the aid industry because during my travels I saw incompetent people in 4X4s”. Confirmation bias, maybe? How about the hundreds of thousands NOT in 4X4s or that you haven’t seen? This would be like me having deep insights into the Silicon Valley Venture Capital world because I had coffee once at that cafe around the corner from a16z with someone who referred to the man who made coffee as “my barrista”.
Cliche no. 4 — “120 billion in aid that can be re-purposed”. To be fair, this is more of poor understanding of economics rather than a cliché. Just look at how that number is calculated. It Includes technical assistance and stuff like US agency training Ugandan agency. Useless? Yes, mostly. But not doing it will not automatically free up the cash. The resources are deeply entangled with politics and “soft power” and trade interests and shit that is WAY out of anyone’s hand. It is given a (generously rounded up) cash value for theoretical reasons alone; but this is not cash sitting around, to be wasted by incompetent people worthy of our contempt.
That was the bullshit out of the way. Felt good. Now is probably a good time to say that I actually like the author of that article and respect his other work. Many intelligent people get frustrated when they get exposed to the realities of the aid industry and Jon Evans is no different. It happens to me as well as it happens to countless others all over the world. The trick is to actually do something to change things rather than vent and wait for the people/ institutions who control the resources to react because someone on the internet makes a compelling case.
Which brings me to the constructive part. The truth is that the case for Cash Transfers is strong. Here at Triggerise, for example, we are building an ambitious platform to take such transfers to the next level. Basically we make it possible for a mother to earn reward points (called Tiko) when she vaccinates her child, and then she can spend those points in the local market. This is good for the mother, good for the child and good for the shop. It also solves two fundamental problems with direct cash transfers:
Fundamental problem no. 1 — If you can’t provide transfers to EVERYONE (and you can’t, right?), how do you choose the people who get it and/ or who get it first. In particular how do you do it without the agency of a potentially corruptible government or some incompetent NGO? We solve that problem by associating the transfer to a positive behaviour (vaccinate child, go to school, use solar energy, etc) and let the rewards be instantly and automatically triggered by a machine once the behaviour has occured. The moment the behaviour occurs, tikos are instantly available to spend.
Fundamental problem no. 2 — Cash transfer costs money. Particularly small amount/ high frequency transfers. Yes, even with Mpesa, which, just for the record, has any significant penetration in two countries alone, out of hundreds. This mathematical fact drives your costs up to the point where you will realize that the most of the money you want to put into direct cash transfers (the proverbial USD120B) will go to a handful of corporations who own the infrastructure. Tiko rewards are 100% virtual. Bits on a cloud. Free. More value to go around and actually reach the people.
At scale, the whole thing is very good for the local economy. It builds wealth, it unlocks new opportunities and will eventually correlate with healthier, better educated communities. It also eliminates the need for middle-men and dedicated aid infrastructure. We don’t “kill aid”. We simply challenge donors to underwrite these rewards as a way to inject cash into those local economies. Then they can sit back and watch their money work, on a real-time dashboard.
This approach will allow us to make purchasing/ investing in impact (including very precise direct transfers) a matter of a few clicks or taps. It will also allow us to re-purpose some of the money that is currently inefficiently spent with trainings, middle men and such. Crucially, it will allow anyone to track the impact of the money invested in real time and thus significantly reduce the risks of investing in impact, while increasing the efficacy of such investments.
The thing is it is damn hard to roll out anything like this. Worthy. Possible. But damn hard. Even when you have the platform and the insights. But that’s what we do every day. Like many a tech start-up, we are operating with a MVP, basically. It kind of works, but things break here and there. We learn and optimize as we go.
And here is one of our bigger problem, which may sound familiar. People (donors, investors) are mostly unwilling to be first adopters — they prefer sitting on the fence and wait to see if and how this approach takes off. Over coffees and on the internet they express the same frustrations the rest of us do, but then they go back to supporting the same old interventions, simply because they seem lower risk.
So here is my challenge to Jon (and/ or others who want to see the system change). How about backing up our ideas with some cash? Not much, but enough to know for sure. We are willing to set up a custom cash transfer project on our platform to Jon’s exact specifications. Even more, we’ll match every dollar Jon puts towards this experiment 1:1 up to, say, USD 10k.
What say you? Any takers?